To catch wolverines for a radio-tracking study in Montana’s Glacier National Park, we picked out spots where paw prints converged in the winter backcountry and set about building stout box traps from spruce and fir logs. The walls were eight inches thick. That didn’t keep some of these animals from tearing their way out in a matter of hours. If one was still there when we lifted the lid a notch to peer in, the opening instantly filled with a blur of claws like crampons, teeth that can crunch a moose femur and deep, rattling growls – wolverine for, “Hope you don’t need your face, Tame Boy, because I’m going to take it off.”
Wolverines sometimes force grizzlies away from a kill, which, we can all agree, is a bad-ass thing to do when you weigh 25 to 35 pounds. Members of our research team often talked about the baddest of all, a wolverine’s wolverine: M3. During the course of the research, which began in 2002 and continues today, I’d followed signals from his radio through remote valleys in the park but never glimpsed him. Oh, he’s big, they told me, heavier than his dad, M1 (who lays claim to the center of Glacier and to three girlfriends there). Most wolverines are explosive inside a trap, but they said that M3 went completely nuclear, that trying to jab him with a syringe-tipped pole would demolish your nerves, that it took twice the expected drug dose to knock him down. They once found him ripping and chewing his way into a closed trap, not to reach the bait but to get at a rival, old M6, who had been caught earlier.
Like the other wolverines in the project, M3 made his home in Mistakis (or Backbone of the World), the Blackfeet Indian name for the cavalcade of peaks that makes up modern-day Glacier, adjoining Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta and the country bordering those two reserves. Enormous as the landscape seems, it is just one link in a long, lovely, untamed and still mostly unbroken chain of refuge and inspiration running from New Mexico to northern Canada – the Rocky Mountains, which divide North America’s waters and shape much of its climate east and west. More in keeping with the Blackfeet vision, many refer to the Rockies as the Spine of the Continent.
Through midsummer’s flare of wildflowers and midwinter blizzards that piled snow as deep as 20 feet, M3 spent his first year rambling the territories of his parents. As a yearling, he probed farther north, pushing into M6’s turf along the park’s Belly River drainage, closer to Canada. A year later, he owned the place, and M6 was gone. Then M3 expanded his range, mated with a female on its eastern edge, and fathered a son, M20.
Radio-tracking amid towering crags that block signals is tough to start with, and much of M3’s swelling territory was especially hard to reach. We’d go months without hearing his electronic cheeps. But in 2007, the team separately captured M3 and his second son, M23, now a yearling, and replaced their radios with satellite collars. Programmed to record GPS locations every five minutes, the high-tech devices would create a picture of the wolverines’ movements in unprecedented detail. The catch was that we had to live-trap the animals again to download data from this particular type of collar.
We got lucky. We caught M3 in the Many Glacier Valley just as the March snow was beginning to soften and the river ice was breaking up. I skied in to help handle the animal and had my first look at Mr. Bad-Ass himself. He was as big and snarly as promised. And yet as he faced us down in his glossy, rich chocolate coat with russet streaks, he was, above all, beautifully, indomitably wild. He was perfect.
Other wolverines we’d monitored traveled day and night at a relentless pace, keeping it up even as they scaled almost sheer cliffs and cols, waltzed across avalanche chutes and padded along overhanging cornices. How about M3? Once upon a time, field naturalists would gather around a warm, flickering fire in the evening. Now they huddle around the glow of a computer screen. Here’s our team looking over his locations, downloaded earlier in the day and superimposed on a topographic map:
“Holy $#&@! He summited Cleveland (the park’s highest peak at 10,466 feet)!”
“And he did the last 4,900 feet straight up in 90 minutes.”
“Yuh. In frickin’ February. ”
“All riiiight, we’ve got him traveling with M23 for a while first. Identical times and locations.” (Long portrayed as solitary – if not downright antisocial, except for mothers with young kits – both sexes of these hunter-scavengers were revealed to be attentive parents. Although young wolverines are weaned and begin to leave their mother’s side at six months, we found them still traveling with at least one parent now and then for another year, most often – and most surprisingly – with their fathers.)
“After climbing Cleveland he goes way up into Waterton Lakes. First, he crosses into British Columbia, then into Alberta. No wonder we couldn’t find him. His territory’s several hundred square miles.”
Both this project, and another long-running study in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, found adult wolverines not only consistently roaming within huge territories but also younger animals loping off
much farther, exploring whole new landscapes when they sought out homes of their own. Meanwhile, in the lower 48 states, wolverine habitat continues to be fragmented. Developments reach farther and higher into untamed stretches. The animals’ remarkable nose leads too many into steel-jawed traps – including those set for other predators such as coyotes or bobcats – along the expanding webwork of roads. And wolverines have grown rarer than grizzlies and wolves – in fact, so rare that they are being considered for listing as threatened or endangered south of Canada.
Wolverines don’t need a few secure areas to survive. They need lots of secure areas – big ones – and healthy corridors of protected land in between to link populations and the genes they carry. The most intact strongholds left for North America’s large native animals are right here in the Rockies – the continent’s spine. What happens to freedom of movement when a spinal column gets fractured? How do we keep folks from logging/mining/drilling/bulldozing ever deeper into the core until they finally bust this land’s back?
As the wolverine becomes better known at last, it adds a fierce emphasis to the message that every bear, wolf, lynx and other major carnivore keeps giving: If the living systems we choose to protect aren’t large and strong and interconnected, then we aren’t really conserving them. Not for the long term. Not with some real teeth in the scenery. We’re just talking about saving nature while we settle for something less wild.